UNAIDS Workshop Discusses Strategies for Mobilizing Sex Workers as HIV Educators
Sex workers, one of the groups most affected by HIV/AIDS, can be "mobilized and empowered" to become HIV/AIDS advocates and educators, according to UNAIDS officials speaking yesterday at a workshop on sex work and HIV/AIDS in Geneva. Approximately 35 representatives from 16 U.N. countries and sex workers' associations attended the meeting, which was part of a U.N. series of workshops focusing on groups that are "particularly vulnerable" to HIV infection. The Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, which was adopted unanimously at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in June 2001, included a call to make sex education for "higher-risk" groups a priority. Aurorita Mendoza, prevention and vulnerability adviser at UNAIDS and a speaker at the workshop, said that sex workers have become "one of the biggest mobilizers in the AIDS response, both on the care and prevention front." However, sex workers still face "many stumbling blocks" that increase their vulnerability to HIV, including stigma, discrimination, exploitation, violence, the illegal and often clandestine nature of sex work and limited access to health services. The workshop identified strategies for the United Nations and sex work organizations to prevent the spread of HIV and lessen its impact among such workers. Findings discussed at the workshop include the following:
- The sex work industry accounted for more than 2% of GDP in Southeast Asian countries in the late 1990s, according to International Labour Organization estimates.
- HIV epidemics "tend to be concentrated initially" among sex workers and their clients before "becoming established" in the larger population in countries where heterosexual intercourse is the primary method of infection.
- Sex workers are among the people "most likely to respond positively" to HIV prevention programs, such as those promoting condom use.
- Involving sex workers directly in the development and implementation of care and promotion programs is "key" to successful HIV prevention because it promotes solidarity, peer outreach and health knowledge sharing, as well as providing sex workers increased control over their own health.